The Necessity of a Future Tense

In many ways, Al Truesdale’s If God is God, Then Why? (Beacon Hill Press, 2002) is a helpful book. Originally written after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1996, Truesdale updated the book following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  In dogged fashion, he refuses to give simplistic answers to life’s toughest questions. His call is to treat hurting people with pastoral sensitivity, to silence some of our off-handed comments that might otherwise cause greater pain to a person who is already hurting.

One by one, Al Truesdale takes up the traditional solutions offered as theodicy (justifying God). One by one, those answers to the problem of evil and suffering are weighed and found to be inadequate. By the end of the book, the fictitious Barbara and Janice are desperate for a satisfying response from their Uncle Carl, a retired pastor. What response will he give to the theodicy riddle?

Chapter 17 provides a climax to the long drama.  In it, the author points us to the central events of the Christian faith, the atonement and the resurrection of Christ. The cross is the vindication of God’s love and goodness. The empty tomb is the ultimate symbol of God’s sovereignty over human affairs. Suffering does not have the final word. The chapter is a backward look at salvation history. Truesdale seems to be saying: “Look what God has done!” This is an important point, yet the reader may be disappointed that the book only touches in a single paragraph (p. 84) on the crucial concept of hope. The future tense is largely ignored in the book, a fact all the more curious since the full meaning of the cross and empty tomb only becomes clear when soteriology embraces eschatology, when salvation is painted in the colors of last things.

When studying the French language in Albertville, France, I spent many weeks on the present and past tenses. It was good to know how to say things that I had done yesterday, or even I was doing in the moment, but as time went by, I started to be frustrated. I had no way of telling others of my plans, of what I would do tomorrow. A speaker without the ability to use the future tense is terribly incomplete.

As with language, so with theology: We need a future tense. Christ was raised from the dead (past tense), and so shall we be raised (future tense). Christ is the “firstfruits” of all those who will be raised at the appearing of Jesus at the end of time (1 Cor. 15:23). If our only hope is for this life, says Paul, then truly our faith is in vain (15:19).

Could it be that the early church kept the bizarre book of Revelation not for the trumpets and bowls, not for the wrath and plagues, but because of theodicy? John, deserted on the isle of Patmos, probably wondered about the “why” of his suffering, like so many Christians have tried to ascribe meaning to their own suffering across the ages. Will evil have the last word? To this despairing man, the living Christ comes and pulls back a corner of the curtain of time. Jesus seems to be saying: I know it’s bad, John, but it won’t always be this way.” Evil is temporary; righteousness is eternal.

Revelation fits well at the “back of the Book” precisely because it is a vindication of God, or more precisely, of his character, what Ray Dunning calls God’s essence, holy love. As Al Truesdale rightly notes, in the cross, we see God’s vulnerability and love. In the resurrection, we see the justice of God. These symbols – as important as they are for salvation presently – have deep eschatological significance. Both point us forward, first to the suffering all Christians must endure for the Name (Matt. 15:11-12) but equally to the resurrection that awaits the Christian (John 5:28-29). The cross and the empty tomb are the basis of our salvation, but also the basis of our hope. They point beyond themselves to the end of time. There is no answer to theodicy without eschatology.  If God is holy love, then there must be a future tense!

The dual doctrines of heaven and hell hold great comfort for the Christian. For those who abuse free will by slamming jets into skyscrapers, for those who wield genocidal machetes in Rwanda, or a thousand other atrocities, there must be a day of reckoning. As followers of Christ, knowing how much we have been forgiven, we earnestly pray for the conversion of the vilest sinner. Yet for those who dig in their heels, there must be punishment of some kind. If God is holy love, there can be no other way. On the flip side, for those who have toiled for the cause of righteousness in this life, with no reward in the here-and-now except a kick in the teeth, there must be a future tense; there must be a heaven, where lavish sacrifice will be clothed with lavish reward.

The Bible affirms that “the eyes of the LORD are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). Christ the sacrifice, “meek and mild,” will one day return as Christ the equalizer, Christ the judge, with a sword of judgment jutting from his mouth (Rev. 1:16). The great and small, the evil and the righteous will stand before the throne of Christ. Justice so long thwarted here on earth will reign supreme. Jesus will judge our deeds, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10). If the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) means anything, it affirms that God knows his own, and while all evils won’t be righted in this life, they will be in the next.

There is much in Al Truesdale’s book that gets it right in relation to the problem of evil and suffering. The cross of Christ? Absolutely. God’s love is vulnerable. The empty tomb? For sure, since even Peter in Acts 2 saw this as vindicating Christ’s innocence and God’s justice. But we must look beyond salvation’s past and present to salvation’s future. We must make room for eschatology, with all of its delight and gravity, or the problem of evil cannot be resolved. After all, is this not what led the Pharisees to embrace the doctrine of the resurrection, as they pondered the senseless slaughter of noble Jewish soldiers at the hands of the Romans during the intertestamental period?

If God is God, then why? We look through a glass darkly; then, we shall see face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). God – our God of holy love – is not only the Great I am, but also the Great I will be. We can be grateful that our faith has a future tense.

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